The Pros and Cons of Paul George

Last May, when I had just started working for Grantland, one of the first emails I got from bosses was a frantic “We need to explain who Paul George is and where he came from. Can you do it?” He was blowing up against the Heat at this point, and he’d just dominated a series against Carmelo and the Knicks. Even though he’d been playing well the whole year, this was another level. He was going toe-to-toe with LeBron and holding his own. Everyone remembers this. That 10-day stretch when everyone went, “Where did THIS come from?”

It was like a superstar just popped up out of nowhere. So, the initial idea was to provide a guide to Paul George: where he started, how he wound up in Indiana, why he’s so good. Pretty basic stuff. But all stuff that was still pretty much a mystery a year ago. So I said I’d do it. A day later, George shot 3-of-10, had five turnovers, and the Pacers got blown out at home.

We decided it wasn’t the best time to do a big “Paul George is awesome” piece.

Now, though? Let’s talk about Paul George. There’s no more perplexing superstar in the NBA. Since last May, the roller coaster from that Heat series has only gotten crazier. He’s gone from everyone’s favorite most underrated young player to everyone’s MVP candidate to one of the most frustrating players in the league to … wherever we are now. If this were the NFL, there would be daily conversations asking the world to decide “Is Paul George ELITE?”

We won’t do that, but it’s been a year now, and there’s a lot of contradictory evidence to process. So, how should we feel about Paul George?

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GOOD: Paul George’s parents are named Paul and Paulette. We found out about this during last year’s playoff run, but until I went to write this story, I’d forgotten about this. We should never forget about this. That detail alone is enough to love him, because every time he explodes on someone, it’s an excuse to bring up Paul and Paulette.

But there’s more to it. As Lee Jenkins reported in Sports Illustrated last year, George’s mother nearly died from a stroke and two blood clots in her brain when he was 10 years old. “We all rushed to the hospital, and that night, the doctors declared her dead,” George said. She survived, but it took two years to recover, and George’s family still calls him “Man” after the way he handled himself throughout.

It becomes pretty hard to root against George once you start reading about his backstory. He grew up in Palmdale, California — more or less the middle of nowhere. Chances are you’ve heard of it only because of that Afroman song. He left Palmdale to play college basketball for a mediocre Fresno State team. More or less the middle of nowhere, again. This all adds to the myth.

As cool as it is to watch a guy like LeBron be preordained for the Hall of Fame at 16 and then live up to it, it’s a lot more fun to talk about a guy who rose up from the California desert, matured late, worked his ass off, and then became a superstar overnight. This is probably one of the reasons the expectations spiked the way they did over the past year. People wanted to tell the story of a nobody turned superstar, and part of telling it meant selling everyone on his greatness.

BAD: Maybe we anointed him too fast. He might not be that kind of superstar. He’s a great defender regardless, but realistically, George had three good games against LeBron last year, and suddenly the world was expecting him to become a top-five player. He was also the only player on the Pacers who could be turned into any kind of marketing force, which probably contributed to people looking at him through the LeBron-Durant prism, something that doesn’t necessarily make sense.

GOOD: For at least two months, he lived up to all of it. In mid-December, ESPN Stats & Info noted that the Pacers were 25 points better per 100 possessions with George on the court. Compare this to the Thunder with Kevin Durant (two points better) and the Clippers with Chris Paul (three points better) and it added up to a “Paul George for MVP?” headline. At this point he was averaging almost 25 points per game, and the Pacers had just beaten the Heat at home. In retrospect, the on/off numbers for George probably speak to how crappy this Pacers bench is, but still. For two months this year, George was as good as anybody in the NBA. And then …

BAD: The season from hell got started around the All-Star break. George came back to earth a little bit between December and February, but then in early February, a woman from Miami accused him of impregnating her, and there were rumors that George tried to pay her a million dollars so she would get an abortion. It was an awful situation all around.

George has been pretty honest about how this affected his game. “I think that’s been a low point in my career,” he told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star earlier this month. “I just didn’t know how to cope with it and how to deal with it at the time.” His shooting percentage went from 47 percent in November to 40 percent after the All-Star break, and it felt like a giant reality check for everyone who was ready to put him in the conversation with LeBron and Durant for the next decade.

GOOD: The Hawks series. When the Pacers were down 3-2, I made fun of his offensive game while talking about the Pacers’ general dive off a cliff. But you know what? He carried the Pacers in that series. Twenty-four points a game, 10.7 rebounds, and 4.6 steals, with 46 percent shooting. That’s before you factor in the defense, and how he demanded to guard Jeff Teague. Those games were miserable to watch, and the Pacers looked like a historic mess of a 1-seed, but George wasn’t the problem.

BAD: The Roy Hibbert rumors. Remember when the Internet was convinced George slept with Hibbert’s fiancée? Between this and the scandal earlier in the year, suddenly his feel-good story wasn’t quite as heartwarming. It sucked for everyone involved, including media who couldn’t figure out whether they should mention the rumors, or whether this meant we had to stop blaming Evan Turner for everything. When George called out Hibbert in the postgame locker room after an embarrassing Game 1 loss to the Wizards, it felt like the official rock bottom of a Pacers season that was full of them.

GOOD: THE FISHING TRIP. Who can forget the fishing trip?

This legendary moment in playoff history somehow galvanized the Pacers — or at least made them momentarily less miserable — and allowed them to rebound from a humiliating opener against the Wizards to come back and win the series. Included was a Game 4 in D.C. that shattered my heart when the Pacers came back from down 17 at halftime. This changed the whole series, and it happened almost entirely because of George. He had 39 points, including going 7-for-10 on impossible 3s that were basically like twisting a knife in my stomach. Whatever you want to say about George, he’s one of a handful of players who can ruin your season all by himself.

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Then came the current Heat series, and we all got a little more confused. Just this week, George has thrown a teammate under the bus and blamed a double-digit loss on officiating, which led to a fantastic Instagram video summarizing the world’s response. Last year’s brand-new NBA superstar was officially a punch line.

Then on Wednesday, he scored 37 points, carried his team in the fourth quarter, and looked exactly like the player the Pacers will be building around for the next decade.

So, how should we feel about Paul George?

You could say he was anointed an MVP candidate a little too fast, but even if he’s still putting it together, he’s also putting together a killer playoff run. He carried the offense and demanded to guard the best player on the Hawks in Round 1, he broke the Wizards’ backs in Round 2, and he just carried the Pacers in an elimination game against the back-to-back champs. The numbers speak for themselves — 22 points per game, 7.6 rebounds, 44 percent shooting, and 40 percent from 3, all up from the regular season. And that doesn’t even account for everything he does on defense. He’s basically the prototype wing that any team wants to build around, and he’s only going to get better over the next few years. If Andrew Wiggins turns into Paul George in four years, no sane basketball fan would dare call him a bust.

Or you could say that George isn’t Durant or LeBron, and he may never get there. He doesn’t create for his teammates the way they do, because he doesn’t go to the rim, and he can’t handle the ball the way other great scorers do. For all the drama he had off the court, his season really changed when jumpers stopped falling. Even in the playoffs, the only games that “wow” everyone come when he hits those contested 3s. No great player in the NBA is harder to enjoy than George on offense, and that’s before you get to the press conferences in which he’s complaining about adversity and calling out teammates. He’s Indiana’s superstar by default, but unless he gets hot taking all of those ridiculous 3s, he’ll generally leave you underwhelmed.

The more we see him in these playoffs, the more I think both of those paragraphs are right. This isn’t even about the Miami series, which the Pacers are probably losing this weekend.

This could be how George looks for most of his career in Indiana. He’s everything you could ever want from a budding superstar … and he might not ever turn into a superstar who can carry his team every night. He’ll frustrate people and confuse everyone, then add just enough ridiculous games to keep everyone guessing. This is what happens when players are asked to do too much. Or any human is asked to do too much. When you’re trying to meet impossible demands, some days will be more successful than others.

There’s an obvious story here about a player who was sold as a superstar and now has unfair expectations, but I don’t think that’s what makes Paul George’s future interesting. With a few of the greatest players on earth — LeBron, Durant, Paul — it doesn’t really matter where they end up. They’ll shine regardless. But there are a lot more stars who could go either way depending on the situation.

A few years ago, George landed in the best possible situation. With Larry Bird, Danny Granger, and Frank Vogel, you couldn’t ask for better tutors as a 20-year-old kid with that raw potential. But now he plays on a team without another real superstar, in an offense that doesn’t really move the ball and exaggerates his weaknesses. He’s gotten so good that he’s asked to take over like he’s Indiana’s LeBron, even if he’s not really that type of player. It could be like this for a few years in Indiana, because it’s hard to imagine them falling into another superstar.

He’s a success regardless — the kid from Palmdale is now a superstar, and he signed a $90 million contract last summer — but the expectations that come with that will be tough to live up to with the Pacers. Next to another star, he could be the world’s greatest sidekick. But right now he feels like a Pippen without a Jordan, and trying to make up the difference just means forcing up long jumpers.

Scottie Pippen was maybe the most “so underrated he’s overrated” player of all time. People called him underrated his entire career, but really, nobody thinks he’s anything less than one of the greatest players ever. But imagine his career without Jordan. We saw it for two years in his prime in the mid-’90s, when he was great even without Jordan, but not great enough to carry the Bulls past a young Magic team or an old Knicks team. Would we still remember him as one of the greatest players ever if he tried and failed to win titles on his own team for an entire career? Probably not, right?

Even as he gets better over the next few years, this might be what we see with George. We nitpick everyone with a max contract and project giant legacy questions onto players’ careers, but for all but a few stars who can transcend everything, the difference between being one of the greatest players of all time and one of the most frustrating superstars in the league is basically luck. George got lucky initially. Now it’s more complicated.

“I’m human,” he told Buckner. “I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to have growing pains. I mean, they drafted a kid from Palmdale. Small town, close-knit family, you know. I’ve never been in this position.”

His numbers are great, the defense is always there, but he also has games in which he just looks checked out for quarters at a time or settles for lazy jumpers as Indiana’s offense breaks down. For the next few years, he’ll be young enough for some of this to change, but if you’re judging him next to the best players in the league — the ones who carry their teams every night — not many of those guys ever had this many violent highs and lows in the playoffs. As for the next few days, if you’re wondering why Indiana looks great one game and overwhelmed the next, the simplest answer might be that Paul George is the same way. We’ll see who shows up this weekend.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, Paul George, Indiana Pacers, Roy Hibbert, Miami Heat, LeBron James

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Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp